Dispatch, Cambodia: ‘Once you get in, you won’t want to get out’

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Travel Weekly’s Michelle Baran is traveling on the Cambodia-Vietnam itinerary for Ama Waterways’ new ship, the AmaLotus. Her first dispatch follows.

I hadn’t been in Siem Reap for more than 14 hours before I was witnessing a heart-warming reality check in the form of 10 orphaned Cambodian children performing a traditional folk dance amid suppressed giggles, trying to maintain the seriousness of their production.

Why is it that the children who seem to have the least in this world always have the biggest, most plentiful smiles, I asked myself as I toured the Orphans & Disabled Art Association (ODA) complex, which houses 27 orphaned children — 10 girls in one room, 17 boys in the other.

After visiting the orphanage, I continued along with several executives and board members from Ama Waterways — which is launching its newest Mekong vessel, the 124-passenger AmaLotus — to visit an English school Ama has sponsored in a village not far from Angkor Wat.

Again, the children were all smiles as we toured the facility, which opened in April. It was a stark reminder of the poverty Cambodia still faces despite the riches of its past and of its culture.

The next day, I jumped in a motorcycle taxi, or tuk-tuk, to head into the town of Siem Reap, only to find as we approached the city center that after a night of heavy rainfall, Siem Reap had flooded.

My driver sloshed his way through the water and dropped me off in front of the old market as I had asked. I managed to make it across the street to a small network of shopping and eating streets that had been spared from flooding.

But as I approached any major boulevard, all were flooded. I hesitated as I looked at the brown water flowing through the city. I looked for a drier passageway. There were none.

So while wearing sandals, I made my way around the town through ankle-deep and calf-deep water.

Later that evening, after another heavy afternoon rain, the Ama team wanted to head into Siem Reap for dinner. “Have you heard?” I asked them when we met in the hotel lobby. “Siem Reap is flooded.”

I told of my adventures that afternoon, trudging through the waters, trying to guide a one-toothed moped driver through the torrents to a hidden spa I had read about in the New York Times, ultimately giving up on him and plodding there myself on foot. “Maybe you guys want to wear sandals,” I advised.

We decided that if we had motorcycle taxis take us directly to the main nightlife drag, Pub Street, we’d hop off Venice-style, have our dinner and hop right back on. But when we entered Siem Reap, the water had risen even higher than when I had been there during the day. And yet the city was packed.

Locals and tourists alike had embraced the walking-streets-turned-canals and were slogging through, as if the flooding were a fun accessory to the night.

We managed to escape having to dive in with them by weaving through a network of restaurant kitchens and sidewalk tables to avoid the current. But I assured the Ama team that walking through the water really wasn’t that bad. “Trust me,” I told them, “it’s only the first step that’s a bit intimidating. But once you get in, you won’t want to get out!”

We laughed, and Susan Murphy, an Ama board member and daughter of Ama co-founder Jimmy Murphy (with whom she is traveling) joked that I just penned the headline for my first dispatch.

She was right, but moreover I realized that what I had said extended beyond the murky water flowing through the city’s streets. Take, for instance, Shirley Hawe, an Australian volunteer who came to the Orphans & Disabled Art Association in 2008 with a plan to work with the orphanage and its founder Leng Touch for one month, then travel around Asia for 11 months.

Hawe is still there, clearly captivated by the Cambodian children and their contagious smiles. It’s going to be very hard for her to get out, as well. Such is the allure of Cambodia.

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